No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Yes, yes, this might be a hard sell for some, though one wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight. He hit the ground running with the superb ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good‘ single, but some would never forgive him for the annoyingly-jaunty ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (though it was originally a downbeat, acoustic protest song in demo form).

nik

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious that Nik was a serious muso (what a horrible ‘80s word). This very talented and rather underrated artist had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, really didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’.

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who went on to produce Rush’s Power Windows.

The Riddle features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads (dare one posit a Gil Evans influence?).

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads, but the silly/funny spoken-word bit and weird prog sections approach the It Bites sound.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich and lyrically well-intentioned if naive. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 (famously nearly taking an embarrassing tumble, see below) but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – possibly a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Ian Faith. Watch this space for Nik’s next move.

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Five Great ’80s Madonna Moments

5. Late Night With David Letterman, 1st July 1988

Though her most famous Letterman appearance was probably 1994’s swearfest, here she comes off more like a naughty big sister than an established star. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard laugh off Dave’s temper tantrums and seem to have stepped out of a ’50s B-movie.

4. Live Aid

This footage from La Ciccone’s Philadelphia appearance on 13th July 1985 gives a great insight into the atmosphere on the day and the adrenalin(and other substances?)-fuelled panic of the artist soundchecks. Live Aid came just a week after Madonna’s pre-fame topless pictures were leaked to the press. Her response was to wear lots of layers and silence the cat-calls with style, humour and an irrepressible joie de vivre.

3. ‘Crazy For You’

Most of my favourite Madonna tracks are ballads (‘This Used To Be My Playground’, ‘Take A Bow’, ‘Something To Remember’, ‘Oh Father’, ‘Promise To Try’) but this is possibly the pick of the bunch. Beautifully arranged by Steely Dan/Ashford & Simpson man Rob Mounsey (though that snare is still too big…), it was transformed from just another song in a so-so movie into a UK number 2 and US number one in March 1985.

2. The 1984 MTV Awards

A totally shameless and over-the-top celebration of womanhood. Imagine the reactions of the Armani-suited execs in the stalls. Madonna and Joni Mitchell have both spoken publicly about the chauvinistic attitudes that prevailed in the music industry of the mid-’80s. This was a brave response. Love her or loathe her, you’ve gotta admire her…balls.

1. The ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ club scene

For many people, this was her only decent movie performance, and I wouldn’t argue with that (though I need to see Abel Ferrera’s ‘Snake Eyes’ again…). Polanski paid homage to this scene ten years later in ‘Bitter Moon’, starring Hugh Grant, to similarly comic effect.

Live Aid: 30 Years Ago Today

live aidWith barely a mention in the media or press, Live Aid is 30 years old today. I was a very excited 12-year-old pop fan on Saturday 13th July, 1985. The weather was hot and sunny and the whole nation seemed united. On the morning of Live Aid, my dad drove us up to the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street where I bought cassettes of Level 42’s A Physical Presence and Scritti Politti’s Cupid And Psyche ’85 in preparation for the day. The streets were almost deserted. We got home around midday, turned the telly on and settled in the for afternoon.

That was then but this is now, as ABC sang. So how does the music from that day stand up in 2015?

Though many of New Pop’s architects/johnny come latelies got in on the act, it was the older artists who – for better or worse – made the biggest impact on the day (Queen, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, Status Quo, Dylan, Led Zep, Dire Straits, The Who, Bowie, Jagger). Apart from Led Zep and Dylan’s hilariously dodgy turns, Live Aid reminded people that the oldies were still hungry and could still cut it live, and the event arguably ushered in the mainstream success of Peter Gabriel, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.

mick jagger tina turner

Many of the youngsters fudged it: Spandau were shown up by their lack of musicianship and quality material, Adam Ant chose the wrong songs, Sade were dull, Style Council were shrill and under-rehearsed, Duran were hamstrung by LeBon’s famous vocal boo-boo, Paul Young and Alison Moyet cornily rehashed some very old soul-revue moves and The Thompson Twins sounded out of their depth despite backing from Madonna and Nile Rodgers. Perhaps surprisingly, U2, Madonna, Howard Jones, George Michael and Nik Kershaw might just have been the best Pure Pop ambassadors on the day with some engaging performances and solid musicianship. Post-punkers such as Sting, Elvis Costello and The Cars were merely functional. But maybe the biggest disappointment of the day was the lack of black superstars (Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie, Miles?), female solo artists and Second British Invasion popsters (Culture Club, Eurythmics, Tears For Fears, Frankie Goes To Hollywood).

david bowie

Naysayers claim that most of the acts appeared simply to further their careers. Well, yes, surely that was a factor for the younger artists but it’s a crushingly cynical view. Anyway, did you buy ANY music as a direct result of seeing Live Aid on the box (Queen’s Greatest Hits doesn’t count)?

I just enjoyed it for what it was. Anyway, most of my favourite pop acts didn’t get anywhere near Live Aid (Scritti, Jacko, Propaganda, Level 42, Prefab) and never would. It’s hard to really complain when the event has raised over £150 million.

So three cheers to Bob Gandalf, as Joss Stone memorably called Geldof. Let me know how your Live Aid went.

 

 

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

thomas dolbyParlophone Odeon Records, released 18th February 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

9/10

As a burgeoning ten-year-old pop fan, I was a bit young to be aware of Thomas Morgan Robertson’s famous ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ single and video. But when I went back and properly investigated that period of his career, it seemed Dolby’s ‘techno boffin’ image had blinded people (sorry) to his more subtle, slow-burning and – frankly – better songs such as ‘Airwaves’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’ and ‘Weightless’, buried in his fine 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb Wright stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me (yep, we were killing music…) and I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought The Flat Earth several times on various formats.

thomas dolby

Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image on The Flat Earth and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection. He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting. My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album. Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ which features some great (and much imitated) fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ is crying out for a decent cover version (or any cover version…). Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself‘ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording. And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Flat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’). But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a more-than-respectable number 14 in the album chart. But, for some, he will always be too clever for his own good, a gimmick-peddler rather than an artist of substance. I beg to differ. He was all the rage in the States though; The Flat Earth peaked at number 35 and he made a gloriously-naff appearance with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the 1985 Grammy Awards:

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout‘s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell‘s underrated Dog Eat Dog. He relocated to LA, married ex-Dynasty actress Kathleen Beller and moved into the former house of Blade Runner DoP Jordan Cronenweth ‘in the hills above old Hollywood’.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth. Watch this space…